Published: March 12, 2013
By: Frances McQueeney-Jones Mascolo
NEW YORK CITY — One exquisite facet of time immemorial is the subject of the new exhibition “Precision and Splendor: Clocks and Watches at The Frick Collection.” Horological developments and innovations spanning the early Sixteenth Century to the Nineteenth Century are documented by the splendid selection of 16 French and German clocks and 14 watches on view in the Frick’s new Portico Gallery through February 2, 2014.
The clocks are mostly French and German, with several Swiss examples made during the French Revolution when French clockmakers sought refuge elsewhere. They are drawn from two major collections, the Frick’s Winthrop Kellogg Edey collection and the Horace Wood Brock collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Since ancient times mankind has needed to mark the time. Early civilizations relied on the sun, the moon, the planets and stars. The Egyptians erected obelisks as early as 3500 BC that served as sundials to mark the hours, later adding markers around the base of the obelisk to indicate other divisions of time. By 1500 BC, they developed sundials with stationary arms. Water clocks, known as clepsydras, appeared in Egypt around the same time and were adopted by the Greeks by about 325 BC. At first they were stone vessels with sloping sides that permitted water to drip at a nearly constant rate from a hole near the bottom. Later, they were cylindrical vessels designed to fill slowly. Markings on the interior measured the hour. Another clepsydra was a metal bowl with a hole at the bottom that was placed inside another vessel of water, causing it to fill and sink in a defined time.
In the First Century BC, the octagonal horologion, the elaborate Tower of the Winds, was built in Athens with eight sundials and a 24-hour clepsydra to show the seasons and astrological dates. Its position in the agora made it an early clock tower. Through the Middle Ages sundials and clepsydras endured, with only moderate improvements. Spring-powered clocks were developed early in the Sixteenth Century and from then continued refinements made the clock an instrument of precision.
The earliest example on view at the Frick is a French gilt-brass table clock made around 1530 in Aix-en-Provence by Pierre de Fobis with an escapement, a coiled spring and a conical fusee. The clock is one of the earliest known spring-driven clocks; it was the spring mechanism, made possible by Fifteenth Century metallurgical innovations, that allowed a clock to be moved from place to place. The example on view was made before Fobis moved to Lyon. Two striking trains allow for striking the hour by one and striking the alarm by the other. The alarm hand can be set for a specific number of hours rather than a particular hour.
The earliest example in the exhibition that incorporates an escapement, a coiled spring and a fusee is a gilt-brass table clock made in Aix-en-Provence about 1530 by Pierre de Fobis. One of the most famous French clockmakers of his time, Fobis is still recognized today for his durable and highly refined movements. The Frick’s clock is among Fobis’s rare surviving works and is one of the earliest extant spring-driven timekeepers. Its complex movement is set into a typical Sixteenth Century French clock case, inspired by classical architecture and ornament rediscovered during the Renaissance. Except for the small dial in blue enamel, the hexagonal gilt-brass case is covered entirely with acanthus scrolls, urns, winged heads and tiny figures whose limbs morph into elegant, intertwining foliage.
The initials “IM” found on each face may refer to the original owner, perhaps Jean Martin, who was instrumental in bringing Renaissance architecture to France. Exhibition curator Charlotte Vignon describes it as “pristine,” which, given its age, is remarkable. She points out that the timepieces on view reveal much about the status (affluence) and interests of the owners.
South German clockmakers in Augsburg and Nuremburg created clocks for admission to the clockmakers guild according to the standards of the local guilds. Munich maker Veyt Schaufel’s masterpiece, a gilt-brass table clock with astronomical and calendrical dials, was made in 1554 for that purpose. The case, by Hans Helmbrecht, is set on sphinx feet and topped by the figure of a woman with a bell and a rooster.
A gilt-brass tower table clock was made in Augsburg around 1580 by an unknown maker. Formerly attributed to Hans Koch, its cast bronze case is engraved and gilded.
A most imposing gilt-brass and silver tower table clock was made in about 1653 by David Weber of Augsburg for his admission to the guild. The tower form was popular in Germany, and Weber made this 233/8-inch example with seven dials that indicate the time, the day, the phases of the sun and the moon and astronomical position. The central dial is an astrolabe with 21 star pointers; a smaller dial beneath it is an alarm. The base of the clock is decorated with the four elements; the upper tier is decorated with the figure of Fortuna, the Roman goddess, and symbolic flowers.
A spring-driven clock by Jean-Baptiste Delaroche in a chased and gilt-bronze case by Paris ébéniste Charles Cressent dates from about 1735. It is decorated with scrolls and shells, flowers, a putto amid clouds in the crest, a classical face below the enamel and gilt dial and mythical serpents fighting above the face of a lion within a sunburst.
An Eighteenth Century garniture of one clock and two vases from about 1715 comprises three Qianlong porcelain vases in celadon bleu fleuri that, once arrived in Paris, were decorated with gilt-bronze mounts. The decoration is expressive of the rage for the Greek taste developed in reaction to the rococo style prevailing in the court of Louis XV. The movement was made by Jean Martin, who apprenticed to the naval clockmaker at Brest and then worked with his mentor Ferdinand Berthoud in Groslay before relocating to Paris.
As the Eighteenth Century wore on, clocks and most other decorative accessories became more and more elaborate, often to appeal to the tastes and aspirations of buyers. A prime example is a pendulum mantel clock made between 1785 and 1790 by Renacle-Nicolas Sotiau with bronze figures representing Study and Philosophy after Louis-Simon Boizot. Sotiau was appointed Horologer de Mgr le Dauphin and was one of the most sought-after clockmakers in Paris, popular with the court.
The 1788 classical sculptural work “The Dance of Time, Three Nymphs Supporting a Clock,” with the movement by Jean-Baptiste Lepaute and the fluid group by Claude Michel Clodion, is a tour de force. The terracotta dancing figures turn around a fluted column, each balancing on one foot. The clock is the first rotating annular dial clock known to have been designed to fit within a glass globe. Transparency allows the mechanism of the clock and the swing of the pendulum to be seen. Placing the clock before a mirror allows it to be viewed from several perspectives. Lepaute was one of a family of premier clock masters in Paris.
An entire section is devoted to the remarkable achievements of master horologist, Swiss-born Abraham-Louis Breguet. Chief among those is the tourbillon made around 1795 and which allows the escapement and balance wheel to be mounted in a rotating cage to negate the effects of gravity. That device enabled Breguet to introduce the carriage clock, known in France as officers’ clocks, which was given a platform escapement that lent stability while the clock could be moved. Napoleon was among Breguet’s first clients.
The clock kept time, the age and phase of the moon, the day, the month and the year. Pressing a button on the top of the case causes the clock strike the time to the last quarter. There is also an alarm, set for the number of hours of sleep desired and not the hour of waking.
Breguet’s tourbillon, and his automatic winding device, led to his interpretation of the watch. No two were alike and his clients included Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, Louis VIII, Napoleon and the Empress Joséphine; in England George IV, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Wellington; the kings and queens of Spain, Prussia and Bavaria, the Ottoman Sultan Mamud II; Alexander of Russia also owned a Breguet watch.
Breguet is well recognized for his luxury timepieces, but also produced scientific clocks, used in government observatories around the world. Other innovations included the sympathique, a clock that could reset the time on a watch that rested on it, and the montre, a tact watch that allowed the user to tell the time by touch. In the early years of the Nineteenth Century Breguet designed the first watch meant to be worn on the wrist for his client Caroline Murat, the younger sister of Napoleon and wife of the king of Naples.
A gilt-bronze carriage clock was made in 1811, 13 years after his first carriage clock by Breguet and his son Antoine-Louis Breguet. Numbered 2678, records indicate that it sold to General Henry William Paget, second Earl of Paget, in 1813.
It was the invention of the spring mechanism that paved the way for the introduction of watches in the Sixteenth Century, and like the clock, mechanical improvements from then until the Nineteenth Century made for precision. While the early examples were more fashion statement than precision instrument, accuracy was ensured after 1675 with the introduction of the balance spring. Desirable watches of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries were enameled to look like miniature paintings.
The prettiest example on view is a balance spring watch made in Switzerland in 1685 by Henry Arlaud that was decorated by Pierre Huaud the younger based on “The Toilet of Venus” by French artist Simon Vouet.
One watch in gold and silver was made by Abraham-Louis Breguet with a decimal dial to accommodate the Republican calendar in force during the French Revolution. It was made sometime after Abraham-Louis Breguet returned to France after his time in Switzerland during the Revolution. After his son, Antoine-Louis, entered the business in 1807, he added the 12-hour dial.
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